At a time when contemporary art production is dominated by forces outside its control, pulling and pushing against commercial and cultural contexts; when media flame wars ignite with the ferocity and intensity of a Southern California bush fire; when battle lines have been drawn and axes sharpened, and anxiety is at a constant simmer, how refreshing it is to encounter forms that are plastic and free, thoughtful and divine. As William Blake, that visionary poet of the Early Industrial age, expressed it: “What immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?” Increasingly rare are universally resonant tokens of pause and contemplation: the calmness of a Japanese rock garden or the elaborate elegance of the Gordian Knot. Roula Partheniou’s Works on Paper at MKG127 Gallery in Toronto offers a pointed introspection. Known for her deft conjuring of optical tricks, her production of material puns, and for wringing a joyous potential from the uncanny, Partheniou has dressed her latest offerings in the mantle of a near-serious humor.
The first bit: despite its titular promise, the show contains hardly any “works on paper.” The majority of the pieces, whether hung on the walls or placed around the gallery floor, are three-dimensional mimetic reproductions of objects: not things themselves, but eerily perfect replicas. The installation teems with facsimiles of paper, as well as a related assortment of simulated office supplies. Uncannily crafted erasers, markers, and pencils sit atop imitation reams of white bond paper, still in their folded packages. On the walls, clipboards of varying sizes (Clipboard Constellation, 2019) share the space with other quotidian items: colorful, woven shopping bags, the kind one finds in any Chinatown; a single sheet of absorbent paper towel, framed; a disposable paper plate; an egg carton, also framed.
The only actual works on paper are three graphite drawings featuring black-and-white illustrations of Piet Mondrian paintings in books (Composition with Red, Yellow, Blue and Black, 2019; Lozenge with Grey Lines, 2019; and Composition with Red Yellow and Blue / Composition with Red and Black, 2019, respectively), which sit inconspicuously near the entrance and act as a decoder for the exhibition. Here, Mondrian’s grids are presented sans color in a transposition that emphasizes their supportive role, as the armatures for chromatic events. They’re presented as greyscale interlocking marks, highlighting Mondrian’s obsession with New York City thoroughfares, and the gridline of the American city. The inclusion of these drawings transports the three-dimensional forms to a different plane, and suggests that the latter be read as geometrical studies rather than mere conceptual tricks. For Partheniou, as with the ancient Greeks, materiality, far from base or banal, is an expression of the sublime, the ultimate manifestation of a broader order that encompasses and ennobles us. “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here,” her forms seem to echo the legendary carving embossing the doorway to Plato’s Academy.
One could read the work as “superficial,” but not in a superfluous way. Rather, Partheniou’s facsimiles of familiar objects come across as totemic, frozen in time. They are presented as forms, and not memories – denaturalized and refusing a sentimental reading. These are things we’ve come to know: containers for candies and fizzy drinks, packages wrapped like gifts, a crumpled checkered french-fry basket liner, manufactured by the artist, but uncannily “real,” reminiscent of country fairs and birthday parties while managing to hover above simple nostalgia. Without the personal history, the scuff marks, the handling of our touch, her reproductions slip from the frame of the objects that they represent, and become something polished, unnamed, and new.
Through their geometry, their empty presence, these objects draw our attention to what Seymour Chatman, writing about the “narrative” films of Michelangelo Antonioni, referred to as “the surface of the world.” But this surface is not an empty space. It is suffused by what the ancient Greeks called the Kosmos, elegantly described by Luc Ferry in his book A Short History of Thought: “If we want to form a simple idea of what was meant by Kosmos, we must imagine the whole of the universe as if it were both ordered and animate.” Partheniou’s forms reflect this perfect order, punctuated by finite cataclysms.
The objects in Works on Paper refuse to be explanatory, and compel us to observe them on their own terms, as part of a larger whole. And in so doing, they force us to see them not as signifiers longing for some ideal “home,” but as avatars of the impermanence of the world and our memory, which they expose as a mirage, evanescent and finite. Nostalgia is sentimentality for the past, or the “pain from an old wound,” but here we’re offered a more detached outlook. In temporal terms, Partheniou’s sculptures invite us to walk alongside the present moment, tracking artefacts that appear crystallized in time and space, hypothetical yet anecdotal, gleaming from a universe where death cannot enter. There is no reason to lament a loss that never was.